This paper sets out to examine, at the national level, changes in the socioeconomic status of Indigenous Australians during the decade 1991-2001, a period that closely matches 'the reconciliation decade'. The information used is from three five-yearly censuses undertaken by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in 1991, 1996 and 2001. Comparisons are made both of change in absolute wellbeing for the total Indigenous population, and of relative wellbeing between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Five broad categories of socioeconomic status are used in the analysis-employment, education, income, housing and health.
The decade is divided into two five-year periods, 1991-1996 and 1996-2001. In 1996, there was a change in Federal government so that for the first time since Indigenous Australians were included in the census in 1971, there is a close match between political and census cycles. This facilitates a comparative assessment of the broad Indigenous affairs policy performance of the Hawke and Keating governments from 1991 to 1996, and that of the Howard governments between 1996 and 2001. This comparative analysis is important because there has been an attempt to change the broad approach in Indigenous policy since 1996. According to recent policy discourse, the period 1991 to 1996 saw a focus on both 'symbolic' (Indigenous rights) and 'practical' (socioeconomic improvements) reconciliation, while the period since 1996 has focused increasingly on 'practical' reconciliation only, in an attempt to reduce the material disadvantage of Indigenous Australians.
The paper develops a 'scorecard' and shows that, in absolute terms, it is difficult to differentiate the performance of governments pre- and post-1996. However, in relative terms-that is when comparing the relative wellbeing of Indigenous people as a whole with all other Australians-there is some disparity between the two periods, with the early period 1991-1996 clearly outperforming the more recent period. In conclusion we note that while practical reconciliation forms the rhetorical basis for Indigenous policy development since 1996, there is no evidence that the Howard governments have delivered better outcomes for Indigenous Australians than their predecessors. Indigenous socioeconomic problems are deeply entrenched and do not seem to be abating even during a period of rapid economic growth at the national level. It is of particular concern that some of the relative gains made between 1991 and 1996 appear to have been offset by the relatively poor performance of Indigenous outcomes between 1996 and 2001.
ISBN: 0 7315 5629 1